Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: The House That Earnhardt Built

The shops of most current NASCAR Cup Series teams are sprawling, ultra-modern facilities more worthy of being referred to as a “complex” or “headquarters” than a “shop.”

Must-haves for any Cup-team compound seem to include some sort of fan-viewing area/gift shop, a façade of large windows, sky-high ceilings, an iron fence around team-access areas and floors so shiny that you can look down to check your reflection.

But it wasn’t always that way.

There was a time, not so terribly long ago, that even the most successful teams in NASCAR did their race preparation in an actual shop. It wasn’t uncommon for the hauler to pull up to a building that more closely resembled a hometown auto repair garage than an ornate palace.

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For example, the original Wood Brothers Racing shop in Stuart, Va., was a modest brick building, featuring two windows, four rollup garage doors and a single-entry door. I’ve never been inside it, but I’d venture a guess that Glen and Leonard Wood didn’t wax and buff the floor too often.

That isn’t to say that the buildings were grease-stained shacks devoid of any customization or personality. Leo Jackson, longtime owner of the iconic No. 33 Skoal Bandit ride piloted by Harry Gant, had the floor painted to match the car. Yes, the entire shop floor was Skoal green.

Robert Yates Racing racked up wins with Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan while preparing the Texaco Havoline Fords in a space similar in size to a high school gymnasium. This wasn’t all that unusual, as one could expect to find a similar scene at other top teams. Roush Racing (now RFK Racing), Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing all utilized structures and layouts that would be considered meager by today’s standards.

So what started the trend of behemoth home bases that make most airplane hangers seem cramped and have the Ritz-Carlton looking like a dive bar by comparison? It was a simple case of keeping up with the Joneses. Or, to be more precise, the Earnhardts.

Dale Earnhardt Inc., existed in some form since the mid-1980s. Unlike current Cup drivers who mostly dabble in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in cars prepared by their Cup owners, Dale Earnhardt fielded his own cars when moonlighting at the lower level. The cars were mostly prepped in his personal shop. But when the goal became a full-time Cup Series effort, it was clear that an upgrade would be needed.

In 1996, DEI entered its first Cup events with No. 14 Chevrolets, laying the groundwork for what Dale intended to be his legacy. He didn’t drive his own cars anymore. It wasn’t about providing a ride for himself but rather for others that he felt were deserving. Earnhardt wanted the organization to be an ongoing achievement for future generations of his family.

Like anything else Earnhardt put his name on, his shop had to be the biggest and the best. Construction on the 108,000 square foot compound was completed in 1999, and it was unlike anything else. With granite floors, majestic gold leaf pillars and floor-to-ceiling viewing windows for the fans to watch all the activities, the shop was NASCAR mecca. It began to become known by another, well-deserved name: The Garage Mahal.

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Things that are now standard practice were marveled at. DEI had an on-site workout facility, business offices, a formal dining room and a host of other amenities designed to be all-inclusive. Everything that the team needed to succeed was right there.

As with any good idea, it began to be emulated almost immediately. Some teams moved into new, larger structures while others upgraded their current base of operations. The majority of the Cup competitors ended up in massive, purpose-built shops. That played a big part in the transition, as a simple building with a rollup door just didn’t seem like enough anymore.

Dale had a bevy of big-dollar sponsors backing his cars, and the impressive nature of his team’s base was no doubt a contributing factor. After all, one could easily see the benefit of dazzling any would-be sponsors by showing them that their dollars were supporting a top-notch operation. Now it seems ordinary, but at the time it was more along the lines of revolutionary.

The fate of the facility has been well-documented. The current owner, Dale’s widow Teresa, has kept a tight lid on the place since racing operations there ceased in the late 2000s. Few people have access to it anymore, and what treasures remain within its walls is the subject of much speculation.

While DEI no longer exists in the way that its founder envisioned, his creation has indeed forged a lasting legacy that is certain to endure.

About the author

Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.

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janice

i visited dei in 2000…..it was beautiful. even the restrooms were beautiful, with polished brass fixtures. you could see brasso streaks from polishing. it was simply amazing. i was in awe when i walked in there. could watch the teams work through the windows and the trophy cases were amazing.

i visited again in 2006. so depressing. no life in the place. everything just looked dull, what had one been so full of life and vibrant. there was a display of the earnhardt foundation but not much else. even the restrooms were dingy.

i often wonder how much of a driving force dei would had been had 2001 not happened.

Sybil

Dale Jr should have inherited the company

wildcatsfan2016

Agree. Theresa’s putting so many roadblocks in his path did nothing for Dale Sr’s legacy.

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